Today, we continue our late spring theme, Practice, with Telmaris Greene, who shares her evolving understanding of the role of the placebo effect in ritual practice.
Stage one of my life as a witch: I’m looking up spells and rituals furtively, as though I were googling porn. What would people think of me? Had I lost my mind? But I’m so excited by what I’m seeing. I’m hanging around New Age People, pretending to be above all that stuff, and just interested in the “serious” (read, traditional Asian religious) statues.
Stage two: My curiosity and interest get the better of me. I observe Samhain. This entails buying some equipment and writing out a spell, so it’s hard to pretend I haven’t begun to take the plunge. I’ve got a wand, two dishes for salt and water, four candle holders and candles for the points of the compass, a goddess statue, and a little selenite tower-thing. And some floral and herbal decorations. I rewrite the ritual I found online to omit references to gods and goddesses, and proceed.
Stage three: I’m finding the practice so rewarding, I start keeping a Book of Shadows. I do the rhymey thing with spells, come up with more and more meaningful objects, throw more and more money at New Age People (thanks, guys!). And then kind of peter out.
So what’s the problem, at that point? Well, I can cast a good circle, but then I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. I meditate zen-style for awhile, but I haven’t found any routine practice I can do without written instructions. And it begins to hit me that there is an art to crafting a really good prayer or image or sacred object, and maybe I’m just not that talented.
Stage four: I’m making an awful lot of wands. That seems weird; sort of a material-girl, acquisitive approach to witchcraft. But there is something deeply fulfilling in it, albeit it entails still more expenditure (all those crystals). And I feel like a loon buying stones that are supposed to “bring” me anything. To paraphrase Mole in The Wind in the Willows, stones just aren’t that sort. They know their place. And anyway, the whole notion of special kinds of energy coming off of rocks in a powerful enough way to influence human events…? No.
So why do I keep buying them, and attaching them to wands? And why do I feel such an excitement when I pick up certain stones, and nothing at all when I pick up others?
Stage five: I start thinking about placebos. Because magick–what Starhawk defines as “the power to change consciousness at will”–now seems to me like a system of crafting placebos.
Now that may sound dismissive, or trivializing, but I don’t see it that way. There are better and worse placebos. If placebo pills affect people in our culture, it is because we’ve learned to associate pills with relief of some kind, which would not have happened if medicine were a sham. Likewise, religious placebos only take effect because of people’s long standing associations, and I believe they only become effective in the first place because they carry a deep emotional resonance for the cultures that adopt them. Catholicism had to adopt some of the pagan practices of Northern Europe, because northern Europeans experience the seasons in their very bone marrow. Nothing could make a deep spiritual appeal to these people that didn’t touch that part of their being.
Ann Moura, in Green Witchcraft, writes of the way that our knowledge affects which magick practices “work” for us and which don’t:
Although there are many people who feel Ceremonial magic is a valid approach to magic, anyone who studies history and understands the derivation for the rituals of Ceremonialism is unlikely to be able to continue to use the system with any degree of success because knowledge, which is the gift of the Goddess, alters the perception. Joseph Campbell was unable to remain a Catholic after his study of world mythological patterns, and numerous historians set aside religion after discovering the origins of various faiths, so it should not be considered unusual for a person who rejects mainstream religions to also reject a magical system that has connection to those beliefs.
Okay, so me trying to root my use of stones in Deepak-Chopra-style pseudo-science won’t be effective for me. What kind of placebo is this, then?
The colors matter to me. The textures. The sheen. Color speaks to my heart at such a depth that to repaint a room feels life-changing. Not everyone is that attuned to color, I suppose, but there are certainly color effects that most people experience — red as stimulating, blue as tranquilizing, etc. That you prefer one or the other probably speaks to a biological / psychological need of yours. And I notice that the books on crystals do not work by means of a rigid dogmatism about what-means-what. Always, the recommendation is that if a stone is “calling” you, it’s the stone for you, no matter what the books say.
On the other hand, if the effect on my nervous system is “real,” is the stone a “placebo?” Or is it, rather, that human beings are affected as subjects who live in worlds of meaning, and not merely as objects, via direct biological intervention? Cathedrals are powerful in their evocation of a sense of the sacred, and they do it by means of stone, wood and colored glass. The simple arrangement of stones on my altar, or the crude attachment of meaningful stones to a meaningful stick–-these are acquiring the same power for me.
Stage six (present stage): Bringing a new energy to finding practices that “work”–-and finding that I do this best by starting with what I have, not by starting with other people’s rituals (though I read about those, too).
Telmaris Green (pseudonym) is a psychotherapist in private practice in Indianapolis. She holds an M.A. in English Renaissance from Indiana University, and a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. She has given numerous local presentations on the treatment of trauma, dissociation, and personality disorders, including Dissociative Identity Disorder. Contact her through her wordpress blogs, Skeptical Witch and Solitary Witch.